Every Family Needs a Book Fairy
By Pam Leo, Family Literacy Activist
“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book and the person reading. It is not achieved by the book alone, nor by the child, nor the person reading. It’s the relationship winding between them, bringing them together in easy harmony.” ~ Mem Fox

As I was driving home from toddler story hour at the library, I got thinking about the other grandparents I saw there with their young grandchildren. Each of us was contributing to our grandchildren’s literacy by bringing them to the library to listen to stories and sing songs with other children. That led me to thinking about all the things I do, and have done over the years, to contribute to the literacy of each of my grandchildren. Being their “literacy benefactor” is the role I am most proud of as a grandparent. From my two-and-a-half year old great-grandson, to my twenty-two-year-old first granddaughter, books play, and have always played a major role in how I show my love for them. I somehow figured out early on that books would be the bridge that would keep our hearts connected, thus, I have been giving them books and reading with them often, their whole lives. I guess I was a Book Fairy long before I made it official.

Parenting never used to be, and was never intended to be, a one or two person job. It does take a village. In today’s culture, with the near disappearance of the extended family, the role of grandparents is expanding to fill that gap. Besides at the library, I see other grandparents with their grandchildren at the playground, at community events and transporting to and from school, preschool and childcare. Many grandparents are the primary childcare provider for the family. I often hear parents saying they don’t know how they would manage without the support of their children’s grandparents.

However, as vital a role as childcare support is, it’s not the only important role grandparents can play in the family. The more I think about it, the more excited I become about promoting the idea of another critical role for grandparents: becoming the champions of our grandchildren’s literacy! Next to parents, grandparents are in the best position to foster young children’s love of stories and books. If grandparents choose to add the role of literacy benefactors, their extra involvement can mean the difference between their grandchildren joyfully learning to read or struggling to learn to read. Parents receive many, many read-to-your-children messages. Given all the things parents today are juggling, if children are to hear the recommended 1000 Books Before Kindergarten (more about this in the next issue), they need as many people in their lives as possible reading to them.

I know for certain that many grandparents are already their grandchildren’s literacy benefactors. How do I know that for certain? I shop every week to get the very best gently used children’s books I can find to supplement donations to the Book Fairy Pantry Project. I inevitably find book, after donated book, inscribed to children “With Love, Hugs and Kisses” from every grandparent name there is. I also meet other grandparents at the thrift stores shopping for books for their grandchildren. Today, I met a great-aunt in the children’s book aisle at Goodwill. Her arms were filled with chapter books for her great-niece and nephew. When she told me she was a great-aunt, not a grandparent, I suddenly realized I shouldn’t limit the possible candidates of literacy benefactor to only grandparents! There are families who don’t have the support of involved grandparents for a multitude of reasons. However, many families DO have aunts, uncles, great-aunts and uncles, step and honorary relatives who could potentially become their family’s Book Fairy.

What would a Book Fairy grandparent, aunt, uncle, great, step or honorary relative do as a child’s literacy benefactor? Simply provide extra books, or access to books and read aloud to them. A benefit of the technology now available to us is that distance doesn’t have to be a barrier to connection. I know of grandparents who read to their grandchildren using Skype or FaceTime. I also know grandparents who “tell” stories as well as read books and children love them both! The manner in which we “Book Fairy” will be as different as the individuals we are. It will depend on the ages of the children, the amount of time we can spend, our financial resources and our own relationship with books.

Here are some suggestions that were in the articles I read while researching this topic:
  • Reading a pre-bedtime story over the phone
  • Having a read-aloud date at a library, bookstore or coffee shop to read chapter books with the older children
  • Giving books and/or children’s magazines as gifts for birthdays and holidays
  • Making read-aloud time a part of every visit
  • Taking children to a thrift store and giving them $2.00 to pick out their own books

Every book we give to and/or read to a child builds their literacy foundation and strengthens our heart to heart connection. My favorite way of Book Fairying (a new verb) is making books come alive by “accessorizing” them. For example, with the book Goodnight Gorilla I have collected a gorilla, an elephant, a giraffe, a lion, an aardvark, a mouse and a banana. I’m just missing a hyena. We also have library and bookstore dates. Almost weekly, I stop by with a fabulous, gently used book I found for fifty cents at a thrift store. When we read it together, we instantly reconnect even if it’s been a week since we spent time together. I can think of nothing else I do, or could do, that would create the connection that books create between us. I call reading to children a “two-fer” because you get two benefits at the same time: connection and literacy.

The book I chose to feature this issue is, Our Grandparents, which features grandparents with their grandchildren from around the world and gives the grandparent names in each of those countries.

I dedicate this “honoring grandparents” article to two sassy Book Fairy grandmothers for whom I have great admiration, appreciation and affection: Cathryn Falwell and Lynn Plourde, two of our beloved Maine children’s authors, who have been beyond generous and supportive to the Book Fairy Pantry Project. Remember:

“The love and support we give our grandchildren helps safeguard their future- and makes the world a better place.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new poem, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."